In just about every way, The Third Courier is an artifact of the past: its Cold War narrative, its setting in a divided Berlin, its plot involving the physical transportation of sensitive materials, its use of Deutsche marks as the main currency, its minimalist graphics and sound (with a film camera theme, no less), and its old-style adventure game approach. One of the first events in the game has the player checking his e-mail by "dialing in" to the server and getting a 9,600 BPS connection. It's a near-perfect time capsule.
|A creative approach to character creation.|
The game is an adventure-RPG hybrid, and so far it reminds me a bit unfavorably of B.A.T. At the outset, you create your "agent" (codenamed "Moondancer"). The character creation process is interesting: you select your sex, where you grew up, your favorite leisure activity, your cover occupation, and your age group, and the game uses these selections to determine your attributes. It also randomly selects a positive "personality trait" (e.g., charming, acting ability, bilingual) and one negative one (e.g., unattractive, hearing-impaired, allergies).
|Figure this one out.|
So far, so good, but just like in B.A.T., I'm not convinced that these attributes and personality traits actually make a difference in the gameplay. I've rolled a few characters, and I haven't seen a whit of difference in the nature of the puzzles, how I'm treated by NPCs, or any other factors based on any of the attributes or traits. I suppose "strength" might make a difference in combat, but most of that is performed with a gun. "Health" is the only attribute that unequivocally plays a part in the gameplay.
The game begins in the player's apartment, where you load up on equipment (a handgun, some DMs, a passport, and an ATM card) and log into your computer to get your messages. The screens are entirely static, and unlike some adventure games, nothing is activated by clicking on the screen elements themselves. Almost all action is controlled from the "Action" menu, with contextually-sensitive selections that change based on your location. Navigation and some conversation options are with a separate set of buttons. You can either play with a mouse or with reasonably-intuitive keyboard shortcuts.
|Starting off in the apartment.|
The opening e-mail provides the game's main quest. A couple days prior, CIA headquarters sent three couriers to Berlin, each carrying a part of "the NATO non-nuclear defense plans to be presented in Brussels next week." Two of the couriers were found dead in Madrid and London, with their respective parts stolen. The third, William Martin, is missing. But it doesn't sound like he's been kidnapped or killed, because a follow-up message has intelligence that Martin has been scouting the black market, looking to sell his part of the plans. This is a bit of a mystery, as his dossier casts him as a former Boy Scout and family man from Arlington, Virginia.
After that, you're out the door and onto the street, and the game gives essentially no clues as to how to begin your search.
|My growing map of Berlin.|
The action takes place in the Wilmersdorf and Schöneberg areas of West Berlin. The game uses real street names, and the right geographic order, though curiously rotated so that east-west streets appear as north-south streets, culminating in the absurdity of the checkpoints between West and East Berlins occurring at the south of the game map. The game also uses a perfect street grid for less perfect geography, but we'll chalk that up to 1980s programming limitations. The main map is 36 x 45 squares, with nine east-west streets and eight north-south streets to explore.
|The comparable real section of Berlin.|
Each street segment has at least one enter-able building, but so far, most of them have been generic merchants, restaurant-bars, office buildings, seedy bars, apartments, and hotels, and despite searching, listening, chatting, and bribing in dozens of them, I haven't found anything to do there. I've found only a few named places, and even fewer things to do within them, although I still have a huge portion of the map to explore.
|A generic location.|
According to this game, the streets of Berlin in the 1980s were dangerous places. Random muggers, panhandlers, obnoxious drunks, police, and assassins show up frequently to menace the player, who can flee, threaten them, or fight them. Taking on random street thugs with my Walther PPK seems horribly irresponsible, but I get experience for it and there don't seem to be any consequences to the bodies I'm leaving in my trail. If the foe is unarmed--as in the case of drunks and panhandlers--I've been attempting to "threaten" first and then fight with my fists if they don't go away.
I get killed in about 30% of my combats, but the game allows liberal saving and reloading. If you survive a combat wounded, you have to travel to the "Mission Support" location (more on this in a bit) to get healed before you can continue.
You can't walk around armed all the time without getting harassed and jailed by the police, but otherwise police can be dismissed by showing your U.S. passport. It took me a while to realize that you can "search" bodies after you kill foes; this process has equipped me with a switchblade and a Beretta.
The game awards experience for both successful combat and plot points, and occasionally I see one of my attribute bars go up when I've accomplished something, which would be a nice sense of character development if I felt that the attribute bars really meant anything.
I began the game by just wandering the streets and working on the map above. As you discover new named places, they get added to the "Places" list, and you can revisit any of them by hailing a cab for 10 DM. There's also a U-Bahn station, but I haven't figured out how underground travel works yet.
|I hope I don't actually say "CIA Mission Support" when talking to the German cabbie.|
Plot progression in my first outing has been minimal. "Mission Support" showed up as a location in my "Places" list from the beginning, so I eventually just took a cab there and later figured out the route from my apartment. Entering this office automatically re-stocks your ammo and allows you to visit a doctor to heal. Visiting the director is an option, but he hasn't been available to me so far. There's also a "supply" office where I got my Walther and various items such as a "bomb sniffer," a "bug killer" (I assume it means an electronic bug) and a "photo-fax."
Further down the street, I found a shoemaker and purchased shoes (for some reason getting 1000 experience points in the process). I thought to bribe him and found that he also sells forged East German papers and West German passports, but I don't know which of these items I need and all are too expensive right now anyway.
At the end of the first day, I found that shops were closed for the night, so I returned to my apartment and discovered I had a couple new messages, one suggesting that I "try the bars and restaurants" in my search for Martin. I tried bribing, listening, searching, and chatting at a few seedy bars and restaurant/bars but I didn't get anywhere. I still have a lot of the city to explore, though.
A few other notes:
- I'm not sure how the game's economy works. I got 1000 DM from Mission Support and used my "cash card" to take out more at an ATM, but I'm not sure if these are one-time options or repeating options. You don't seem to get anything from killing enemies.
- The game isn't entirely turn-based; time passes minute by minute if you just stand still. But it doesn't appear that enemies can take actions while you're just standing still.
- The only sound in the game is bloopish music when you enter certain locations. I turned it off after a few minutes.
You may have noticed a familiar name in the first screenshot. Although the game was designed by Carol and Ivan Manley of Manley and Associates (later bought by EA and renamed EA Seattle), it was programmed by Robert Clardy of Synergistic Software, developer of the "campaign" series of games (Dungeon Campaign, Wilderness Campaign, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure) that I've been reviewing slowly since the beginning of the year. This game absolutely in no way feels like a Clardy game, so it makes sense that he was programming someone else's creation, although for all I know he radically changed his approach in the intervening 7 years. Anyway, Robert has commented frequently on this blog when I've covered his games, so I'll see if I can get him back again.